Your e-mails, letters, cards and prayers meant much to me. They reminded me in a most moving way just how fortunate I am.
Even though intellectually we know that breast cancer is not necessarily the death knell it once was, cancer is still a frightening word to hear. But I cannot say I felt fear. I didn’t. But I saw fear in the eyes of others. The hardest part was sharing the news with our children. Especially emotional for me was telling our daughter. She lives in South Korea so the news came to her via e-mail. As a woman, I am very aware that “Is there any history of breast cancer in your family?” is a frequent question asked at medical appointments. Now Jillian’s answer would forever be “Yes. My mother.” I’ve wanted to pass on much to our children — a possible pre-disposition to cancer was definitely not on the list.
I was prepared mentally and physically for the July 15th surgery. I approached the operation as an athletic event much like I approached the birth of our three children. When I learned I was “with cancer,” I increased my physical exercise, improved my eating habits and worked on educating myself about what was to come. I do not think I increased my time with God — happily, we already have quite a bit of such time here at Koinonia — but my awareness and intentionality during those times were heightened. And something happened.
German theologian Meister Eckhart said the best way to find God is to “sink” into him. I sank deeply into something profoundly good. I did not dwell on being cured or not being cured. I had an awareness of being loved whatever the outcome. I found myself mulling Thomas Merton’s explanation of contemplative prayer — “finding that place in you where you are here and now being created by God.”
Outward signs began to match what I was feeling interiorly. The outpouring of love from my community, family, friends, interns, former interns and guests filled me. Prayer works. Whether the specifics of the prayer come to pass or not does not matter. As the recipient of your prayers, I felt what I think it must feel like to be a child held tenderly.
Between surgery and the start of radiation treatments, I came back home to the farm. On a drive through the countryside, I passed a series of yard signs that read “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.” In less than 24 hours after President Carter’s press conference announcing his cancer diagnosis, dozens of these signs appeared throughout our area (Plains is only seven miles away) and they are still there. All proceeds from their sale go to cancer research. There is one such sign at the entrance to Koinonia Farm. Like so many who watched that press conference, I was touched by Jimmy Carter’s words, smile, spirit and humility. I loved the laughter his humor evoked. Most of all the peace he emanated affirmed the peace I was feeling.
A few months later, with radiation treatments completed, I prepared to travel from Texas back to the farm. I stopped by to see my niece before getting on the road. She was a patient in M.D. Anderson Hospital having battled stage 4 colon cancer for three years. I left Houston on Sunday. She died on Monday. I didn’t expect that. I was cancer free. Jimmy Carter had announced the same. My niece was 27. I thought about railing at God. But I thought of Stephanie and how she exemplified Eckhart’s sinking into God.
Pray for Stephanie Spates Soria and her family. Pray for President Carter. Pray for me. Pray for our world. I pray for you. It matters.
August 9 is a day of anniversaries. It marks both the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the day Michael Brown was killed. Regardless of political alignments, it cannot be argued this day holds loss of life and lack of peace. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to World War II, but they certainly did not bring about world peace. Wars continued after the bombs fell and the half-century following was filled with unease and fear of more bombs.
In the days following Michael Brown’s death in 2014, people were quick to place their own personal politics over the situation, deciding who was right and who was wrong. Social media became a battleground filled with anger and a sense of injustice. Heroes were lauded and villains were maligned. Everyday conversations quickly turned to issues of race and systemic injustice. Peace seemed far from anyone’s words or thoughts.
In the dining hall on Koinonia Farm, the community lights a candle everyday at lunch to remind its members to pray for peace. The candle serves as a concrete symbol for an often abstract and difficult charge: peace through reconciliation. Usually someone reads a biography of a peacemaker to educate and inspire those eating lunch. In a dining hall of anywhere from 20-50 people, one can safely assume not everyone is in agreement across political or religious opinions. But one thing every member of the community commits to is working for peace through reconciliation.
One thing that stood out in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown was the amount of angry voices and opinions flying around. People were literally and figuratively shouting at one another. Anger certainly has its place and injustice should be called out, fought against, and stopped. But it felt like a whole lot of shouting and talking and opining without any listening. In the face of such big problems as racial tension and loss of life, the solutions must be complicated and nuanced. The only way to work toward peace and reconciliation is to listen: to hear what each side is saying, to understand why people are angry, to realize different people experience life in very different ways.
The problems of injustice and racial tensions in this nation need people willing to sit down with others who do not look like them or think like them to listen. Just listening will not solve all the problems and this is not a call to sit down and stop talking about uncomfortable issues. Instead, it is an encouragement to begin with listening. The conversation does not need more opinions. It needs more people willing to listen and learn from each other. And maybe this small step- much like the small symbol of lighting a candle- will be a way to begin to reconcile and bring about peace.
Now, a year later, one is tempted to ask if the problems have been solved yet and realize with despair that the world seems no closer to peace than it did a year ago. Christians pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, but this prayer can often be more discouraging than anything. More people have died since Michael Brown. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end World War II, but they certainly did not end all war. It is tempting to forget one tragedy in the wake of a new tragedy. Every day is a new anniversary for someone’s death, another injustice, another natural disaster. The work for peace through reconciliation is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who can pray even when it seems nothing will ever change. It is for those who chose to listen day after day even when the angry rhetoric seems never ending. It is for those who understand the power of even the smallest move toward reconciliation.
Peace through reconciliation is not easy, but it is good and necessary work that can be done by anyone anywhere. All it takes is a willingness to show up, offer grace and a listening ear, and have faith that small steps lead to big changes.
I love baseball. And here we are at the start of another season. My beloved fallen-on- recent-hard-times Houston Astros began last season with two wins against the Yankees. It was bliss to behold.
Home here at Koinonia, I’ve been known to use baseball metaphors way beyond what is reasonable. I’m about to do it again. Bear with me.
Love one another. It’s simple. It’s difficult. Listen to the news and you just may come to believe it’s impossible. But it is Jesus’ final commandment. He’s at the Passover meal, Judas has slithered out of the room and, in these last few moments before heading to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is clear, “Love one another.” He was sharing a lesson about love and about dying. He washed feet.
I love it when our community goes on outings. At the beginning of baseball season two years ago, a group of us went to see the movie 42 — the story of Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black man to play Major League Baseball. The old segregated way had to die and Jackie’s entrance into professional baseball helped to make it so.
Baseball is spiritual. It’s all about coming home. It’s a great metaphor about life and about dying. It’s full of sounds. The crack of the bat, the crunch of cleats as you sprint for first, the thud as you touch first base with the correct foot so you are better propelled on to second and the roar of the crowd as you round third and race for home. That’s what it’s about, but how often does it happen? Someone who bats around .300 is considered a good hitter. That means two thirds of the time, the hitter experiences death. She may hit the ball, but someone catches it or someone throws it to a base she’s trying to reach. Maybe it’s a force out or maybe she’s tagged, but she’s out. But oh, the joy, there’s another turn at bat. There’s the thrill of another chance. Those who hit at the top to the middle of the order often get four at bats in a game. Four chances to hit. Baseball is such a hopeful game.
There is an icon that’s a favorite among Christians belonging to the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches. It depicts Christ descending into the world of the dead, setting captives free even to the point of finding Adam and Eve and pulling them out of their graves. The truth the artist conveys is Christ reaching all the way back to our human beginnings. Reaching even through death for everyone — all of us.
Love one another. To love, we die to self. I think we have focused on Jesus’ death way too much. Let’s look at his life. I think he was demonstrating what we must do — die to ourselves each day to fulfill his command to love and to bring about the “new earth.” We keep going up to the plate even when we fail two thirds of the time. We don’t stop trying. As I heard recently, “If we can be courageous one more time than we are fearful, be trusting one more time than we are anxious: be cooperative one more time than we are competitive, be forgiving one more time than we are vindictive, be forgiving one more time than we are hateful” The bat meets the ball, we see the ball going, going, gone; we touch all the bases. If we strike out, well … if Jesus reached all the way back to Adam and Eve, isn’t he reaching for us? Always. His longing for us never ceases — strike out or homerun.
I think a better baseball metaphor, one that fits better with this theme of dying to self is the sacrifice. A runner is on first base. To get him to second you bunt the ball. You lay down a sacrifice. The runner is going to get to second and into scoring position even though you’ll be thrown out at first. Or a runner is on third. You lift a long, high fly ball, but the outfielder catches is going o catch it. That’s all right. You’re out, but the runner can tag third base and make it home ahead of the throw.
Loving one another is about dying to self. It’s about making sacrifices for others. It’s about going up to the plate again no matter how many times we’ve struck out. On that night two years ago, after the movie, we all came home again to the farm and even the non-baseball fans were buoyed by Jackie Robinson’s courage and perseverance. I think he demonstrated what Jesus asks of us — he died to self, he sacrificed for others and he loved and is loved.
I love baseball.
Go ‘stros! Play ball!